Who are football’s current “super-managers”? You’d probably name Pep Guardiola, the visionary now redesigning Manchester City following wildly successful, football-transforming runs at Bayern Munich and Barcelona, or his great rival, José Mourinho, the dark master of mind games recently tasked with reenergizing Manchester United after cup-studded but often conflict-laden periods with Chelsea (twice), Real Madrid, Inter, and Porto. Carlos Ancelotti, the genial new Italian boss of Bayern, would be less likely to come to mind. That’s a serious injustice. The dapper 56-year-old former central midfielder has won the UEFA Champions League three times — a feat matched by no other manager — and had stints accumulating a shelf-full of trophies, including four league titles, with of some Europe’s biggest teams: Juventus, AC Milan, Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain, and Real Madrid. They keep paying him millions of euros for a reason.
Ancelotti gets less attention than his two rivals because he’s neither a football philosopher like Guardiola, for whom it sometimes seems as if “living out his ideals through his team matters more to him than winning,” as writer Jonathan Wilson puts it, nor a antagonism-generator like Mourinho, whose unending feuds with the press, officials, owners, league leaders, other managers, staff, players — and sometimes himself — keep him in the headlines. But Ancelotti’s managerial approach, spelled out in his new book, Quiet Leadership (coauthored with business professor Chris Brady and former Chelsea sports director Mike Forde), may be more in keeping with football’s evolution, especially at the largest clubs.
Those teams, as Wilson has argued in the Guardian, increasingly view themselves as global brands offering an entertainment product — more like Disney than traditional, community based sports clubs. The brand teams need to win, always, but they also need to market big-name players, and avoid any controversy that might hurt the sales of jerseys and other consumer products or get in the way of lucrative broadcast rights. Ancelotti fully accepts this modern reality. “Every business has at its heart the delivery of the product to the consumer,” he notes. “In football that product is on the pitch.” Ancelotti says he has no concern with his own identity, “but only that of the team, and this depends on what the club asks of you, the characteristics of the players and the tradition and the history and tradition of the club.” If Real Madrid’s owners, say, want lots of star players in the lineup and attacking play, he will work to accommodate them.
“Never believe that the tactics you deploy today and that have brought you great success will continue to be effective tomorrow.”
This pragmatism is reflected in Ancelotti’s tactics. His teams aren’t boring, but they don’t express an identifiable style. When he started out as a manager at Reggiana and then at Parma, he writes in Quiet Leadership, he was wedded to the 4-4-2 formation, which he still believes is the best defensive system, but he has become far more flexible with time. At Real Madrid, for instance, he turned to a 4-3-3, so that Cristiano Ronaldo could play outside, which the star much preferred, though his manager thought he’d be more effective as a central striker. It was Ancelotti who shifted Andrea Pirlo at AC Milan from attacking midfielder to a deep-lying playmaker, transforming a very good player into an epochal one. Ancelotti says he will only fine-tune Guardiola’s possession-driven tactics at Bayern Munich, but the important point is to avoid tactical dogmatism. “In football, as in anything, you must not stand still,” he argues. “Never believe that the tactics you deploy today and that have brought you great success will continue to be effective tomorrow.”
In advanced economies, hiring the best workers — and keeping them engaged, happy, and developing — has become a key component of success; high-level football pushes this competitive logic to its limit. Nowhere has Ancelotti’s leadership been more effective than in the management of talent, earning him the nickname “the diva whisperer” in football circles. As the Ronaldo example shows, Ancelotti is willing to listen to players and adjust his own views; he doesn’t embarrass them publicly; he works with them to improve their abilities; and he tries to protect them from the media and team owners. “I treat them like people first, not just like players,” he observed in an interview with Alex Reid of Sport. “I want to speak to them at the same level.” Players understandably love him and regularly have performed at their peak for his teams.
Once in a while, the diva whisperer can lose his cool, as when, after PSG played a disastrous first half, he rushed into the dressing room, swearing profusely in Italian, and kicked a box straight into Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s head. “Nobody had done anything like that to me before,” the Swedish striker recalls in a commentary included in Quiet Leadership. (Given Ibra’s towering hight, simmering rage, and martial arts skill, that’s hardly surprising.) But Ancelotti’s rare storms of anger soon dissipate and he’s swift to apologize. Zlatan refused to hold the incident against him. “In Carlo,” he enthuses, “I finally met the best coach ever.”
Another reason Ancelotti has been so in-demand as a manager for football’s leading clubs is that he’s a quintessential European, at home in several national environments and fluidly multi-lingual — he speaks not only his native Italian but French and English and he has been crash-learning German. Today’s big football teams, German thinker Peter Sloterdijk points out, are, like the global cities that host them, increasingly “locations” for workers from everywhere, not “home teams” in any traditional sense. Look at the rosters of Real Madrid, PSG, and other brand teams and you’ll find internationalism triumphant: players from Spain and Germany and Brazil and France and Italy and Croatia and many other countries vie for playing time. Having a broad perspective and, ideally, facility in several tongues are significant advantages for a manager of a planetary brand, whether it is a media conglomerate or a football club.
He’s the real “normal one,” not the mad-glint-in-the-eye Jürgen Klopp, Liverpool’s hyperkinetic boss.
Still, Ancelotti is also a man with roots. The son of a kindly country farmer from Parma, he grew up poor but happy, “a 100 percent Italian product,” as he puts it in his charming 2009 autobiography, The Beautiful Games of an Ordinary Genius. His upbringing helps him keep perspective in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of modern football, where job security is nil. Arsene Wenger’s two decades at Arsenal’s help is a striking anomaly in today’s game. The typical stint for professional managers is now well under two years — far shorter than the eight years or so that CEOs hold their positions. Ancelotti’s longest managerial run was with AC Milan, the team he starred for as a player. From 2001 until 2009, he led the club through a golden age, winning the Champions League twice (his third European trophy was with Real Madrid in 2014) and one Scudetto, along with multiple cups. His subsequent appointments have each lasted around two years. These days, Ancelotti goes into a new job recognizing that he’s very likely to get removed in the not-so-distant future.
Which isn’t to say that he finds getting the boot pleasant. Ancelotti’s account in Quiet Leadership of his last days at Chelsea — where he excelled during his two years as manager, claiming both the Premier League and the FA Cup in his first season, finishing a close second in his second, and achieving one of the highest winning percentages in league history — is jarring. Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich comes off a bit like Marvel’s Doctor Doom, irrational and despotic. After Ancelotti began his second Chelsea season with a resounding 6-0 win, for example, the Russian owner immediately summoned him to his home for a harangue about the team’s performance. It was a “red flag — and only one game into the season,” remembers Ancelotti.
“Football is the most important of the less important things in life,” the Swedish midfielder and coach Nils Liedholm once told Ancelotti. The boy from northern Italy clearly took the point to heart. He’s an enthusiast of good food and fine wines. During a recent lunch with the Financial Times at a fancy Italian restaurant in London, he ordered a $100 bottle of Guidalberto, informing the waiter, “I don’t need to try it. I know this wine.”At Ancelotti’s home, says AC Milan CEO Adriano Galliani, “you always eat well.” Ancelotti’s Instagram feed features a lovely photo of the manager at dinner, red wine poured, with Pirlo and Frank Lampard. His expression is warm and relaxed: he’s the real “normal one,” not the mad-glint-in-the-eye Jürgen Klopp, Liverpool’s hyperkinetic boss. Ancelotti gets away often to lovely Vancouver, the quiet Canadian city where he lives with his wife.
And now he has a new challenge. Can his “quiet leadership” bring Bayern Munich not just another Bundesliga title but victory in Europe? That’s something the obsessive Guardiola couldn’t pull off, as dominant as his Bayern were in league football during his three-year reign. According to SkyBet, the odds of Bayern Munich winning the Champions League next spring are currently five-to-one. Only Barcelona’s chances are deemed better. I’d make the bet.
This piece originally appeared in Howler Magazine
Brian C. Anderson is the editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal.
Photo by Grazia Neri / Stringer